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Should Washington grow up? Low-rise city hires experts

The Washington Monument and surrounding office buildings are seen in an aerial view in this file photo taken May 19, 2011. REUTERS/Jim Bourg
The Washington Monument and surrounding office buildings are seen in an aerial view in this file photo taken May 19, 2011. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

By Ian Simpson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The District of Columbia has begun a review of century-old rules limiting building heights that could let the low-rise U.S. capital grow upward without harming views of landmarks such as the Washington Monument and U.S. Capitol.

The city has hired consultants to conduct the review, part of a congressionally requested plan that could revise building limits that have largely banned high-rise structures, Mayor Vincent Gray said on Tuesday.

Under a 1910 federal law, building heights in the 68-square-mile (176-square-km) U.S. capital are determined by the width of the street on which a building fronts. The maximum height is 130 feet, with some exceptions.

The result is a distinctive low-lying skyline with no skyscrapers to block the view of landmarks such as the National Cathedral and the Old Post Office. The tallest structure is the Washington Monument, which rises more 555 feet, 5-1/8 inches into the air.

Partners for Economic Solutions, a Washington consulting firm, will head a team analyzing the economic impact of raising the limits, Gray said in a statement.

Skidmore, Owings and Merrill LLC, a U.S. architecture firm, will be in charge of studying the impact of building heights on the District of Columbia's character, it said.

The city is working with the National Capital Planning Commission on the height review.

The House of Representatives' Oversight Committee, headed by California Republican Darrell Issa, last year requested a study of the height limits to see if they were still needed. The capital is self-governing but Congress has overriding authority.

The study by the NCPC and Washington teams will aim to ensure the prominence of federal landmarks and maintain "the horizontality of the monumental city skyline," Gray's statement said.

It also will seek to minimize harm to the original 18th century plan for the city, and consider such issues as economic development and security.

The National Capital Planning Commission has hired AECOM Technology Corp, a design services company, to work on the study. The panel will vote on the plan's recommendations and they will go to Congress in the fall, the mayor said.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Scott Malone and Tim Dobbyn)

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